How a Surf Bum Learned to Trust the Bible
Dr. Wallace, a former surfer and pastor with more than twenty books to his credit, teaches Greek and New Testament Studies at DTS. He also travels the world taking digital photographs of Greek New Testament manuscripts in his capacity as executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts—an organization he founded twelve years ago. Here he shares with Kindred Spirit readers his journey in pursuit of the truth.
When I was a junior in high school, I made a radical commitment to Christ. At that point I dedicated myself to preparing for Christian ministry.
I grew up in Southern California’ss Newport Beach as a surf bum. I would buy New Testaments for twenty-five cents apiece by the boxload, load them into my Volkswagen Beetle, pick up hitchhikers, share the gospel with them, and give them New Testaments.
The man who sold Bibles to me at a discounted rate happened to be an Arian, someone who did not believe in the deity of Christ, and he challenged my faith. It rattled me. And I thought, I have got to learn Greek. If I’m going to commit my life to Jesus Christ, I absolutely have to know if he’s worthy of my trust and my worship. Is he truly God in the flesh?
“We need to pursue truth more than defend truth. That has to be the backbone to the defense— the pursuit of truth.”
So in college I minored in Greek. Later, I majored in New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, and I got my doctorate as well in New Testament Studies. The driving motive was the deity of Christ and the trustworthiness of Scripture in terms of what it says about him.
My academic career has had three primary focuses: textual criticism, Greek grammar, and Christology. The route I have taken to affirm a high view of Christ has been especially through Greek grammar and textual criticism. Consequently, I’ve written a book on Greek grammar that’s used in seminaries and Bible colleges throughout the English-speaking world. What motivated me to get into the Greek text of the New Testament and these manuscripts is my love for Jesus Christ.
The Reliability of Biblical Manuscripts
People ask, “Are the manuscripts trustworthy in the sense that they are trustworthy witnesses to what the original text actually said?” And I can say, “Absolutely. Yes, we have an extraordinarily reliable Bible.” The Bible we have in our hands today is, in all essential respects, what was written in the first century by the apostles and their associates—and long before that by the prophets and others. Not a single cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith is jeopardized by any viable textual variant, and that’s important for Christians to know.
The way of salvation is clear. We know that the Bible teaches unequivocally that Jesus died on a Roman cross right outside of Jerusalem, that he was raised from the dead bodily, that he is, in fact, the God-man who saves us from our sins, and that when we put our faith in him, we are, in fact, saved. These primary doctrines, essential truths of the Christian faith, are simply not tampered with by textual variants.
It’s also important to understand what we mean when we talk about “textual variants.” A textual variant is any place in which at least two manuscripts disagree on the wording of a passage. When we say at least two manuscripts, we could have a thousand manuscripts on one side that all say the same thing and only one, maybe from the fifteenth century, that has one letter difference. That’s a textual variant. If we count the number of such differences, that gives us the number of textual variants. These differences have largely to do with the wording, the word order, spelling differences— this kind of a thing. The vast majority of our textual variants can’t even be translated because they’re so trivial.
For people who want to pursue the truth about the Bible, and especially if they wish to do so in order to defend their faith, I have five suggestions:
5 Suggestions for Defending the Bible
Fall in love with Jesus.
If we try to defend the faith before we have fully embraced the Savior, our experience will end in disaster. The road to hell is paved with the bones of apologists who have fallen away from the Lord. Someone who starts by wanting to defend the faith may not even know the Savior. I tell my students they should consider their learning an act of worship. We should never divorce our minds from our hearts.
Learn from the best scholars rather than only from other apologists.
It’s good to learn from other apologists, but we must also go to the sources. That’s the hallmark methodological battle cry of the reformation—ad fontes: back to the sources. If an answer is really an easy one, it might be a wrong one. Some Muslim apologists who did good research on the nature of the New Testament cleared up an apocryphal story that Christians had believed. I don’t like to see us embarrassed like that. We must identify the scholars whom the best apologists quote and read their original writings. That includes diving into the books by opponents or works that challenge our understanding.
Be sympathetic to all viewpoints as much as possible, and challenge your own presuppositions.
Before we can defend the truth, we have to know the truth. If we’re going to be honest and ready to give an answer to those who have a question about our faith, we have to challenge our own presuppositions. We need to pursue truth more than we defend truth. That has to be the backbone to the defense—the pursuit of truth.
If Christians know the truth, we should rejoice that God has been gracious to us when we deserved nothing but hell. All too often, there is kind of a triumphalist spirit among apologists who want to get out there and say, “I can kick some agnostic tail here today.” Instead, we need to love the other person while still presenting powerful arguments. We need to have both. If we’re arrogant, we end up belittling the other person. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25).
We need to love—really love the person with whom we’re speaking. We must be as concerned about that person as we are about the gospel. I base that on what Paul said: “For I could wish that I myself were cursed” that is, that I would go to hell if it would but save one of my fellow countrymen (Rom. 9:3). He had a concern for his fellow Jews that was every bit as profound as his concern for the truth of the gospel. A person with a sincere love for other people, rather than just a concern for the truth—that’s the kind of person God loves to use.
The Reliable Text: Recommended Resources
- F. F. Bruce’s little book, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? is a great read. F. F. Bruce was a professor at Manchester University in England and a solid evangelical. Although his book is dated, he has written a remarkable piece of work here that’s a good place to start.
- Craig Blomberg’s book, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, first published in 1987 and revised in the past decade, is also an excellent read. It’s a little bit more academic.
From Dr. Wallace
- Reinventing Jesus, coauthored with Ed Komoszewski (ThM, 2000) and James Sawyer, (ThM, 1978; PhD, 1987) deals with many issues: Are the Gospels reliable? Is the text reliable? Did the ancient church get it right about the canon? Are the creeds reliable when they speak about the deity of Christ? What about mystery religions?
- Go to danielbwallace.com to read frequent updates from Dr. Wallace on his views and work, and visit csntm.org for updates on the work of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. There you can also order a DVD of the 2011 debate at Southern Methodist University between Dr. Wallace and agnostic scholar Dr. Bart Ehrman. It was the best‑attended debate in history about the text of the New Testament.